By Sandi Goldfarb
During the course of my career I have experienced the pleasure and, at times, the pain of working with celebrities on behalf of both nonprofit and for for-profit corporations. Whether they are actors or athletes, politicians or performers, the best ones understand they have a job to do and use their popularity to draw attention to an issue or institution. According to a study conducted by Rutgers University, finding the right match can have a positive impact on fundraising and boost an organization’s credibility.
During my tenure at New England Aquarium I oversaw events featuring a long and diverse list of celebrities, from award-winning documentary filmmaker, Sir David Attenborough, to ice cream icons, Ben & Jerry. Each did their homework. Though they represented different generations, different cultures and different industries, they had much in common. Each understood the Aquarium’s mission, vision and priorities. They saw themselves as cheerleaders who were there to excite the crowd and garner support for an important community institution. Most importantly, they connected the dots back to their own lives.
A few years later, I lead a team handling media relations for Chef Wolfgang Puck whose catering division was chosen to handle food service at the Museum of Science, Boston. Despite the fact that he had flown in from Los Angeles on the red-eye, Puck was raring to go when I picked him up at his hotel at 6:00 a.m. He sliced, stirred and sautéed his way through two morning TV programs and kibitzed with drive time DJs like they were old friends. Puck seamlessly wove Museum messages into his interviews. He referenced upcoming exhibits and the fundraising gala he would be overseeing. He was funny and engaging. He understood his job and did it well.
That evening at a museum-sponsored cooking demonstration and book event, I asked Chef Puck how many books he had time to sign. “If people are nice enough to buy my new cookbook, I will stay as long as it takes to sign them all.” And he did. He also posed for pictures with fans, autographed aprons, shook hands, kissed cheeks and, despite a slow-moving line, charmed the crowd, all the while touting the Museum.
From where I sit, the celebrities who are personally committed to supporting organizations and events are polite, modest, patient, warm and ready to help. And while I will not name names, the divas I have encountered (both male and female) also have much in common. Basically, they didn’t understand their roles or assume their responsibilities. They never bothered to review the background materials provided or find a way to make the organization’s mission personal. And they, or their “people”, spent more time focusing on dressing rooms and hairstylists then on the work at hand. Sadly, these so-called stars brought little value to their partnerships and wasted a good opportunity to draw attention to a timely issue or raise the profile of a hardworking nonprofit.
For organizations thinking about securing a celebrity to host a program, perform at a gala or serve as a spokesperson, be specific when it comes to expectations and get everything in writing. Whether it’s a memo for someone donating their time or a contract for a paid appearance, negotiate in advance. Be sure to specify:
• The time of arrival and departure
• The number of interviews they will participate in and when they will be available
• The number, frequency and timing of event-related messages/tweets/photographs they will post on their social media platforms
Equally important, confirm that they will:
• Participate in a Red Carpet rope line or other photo opportunities
• Meet with major donors/supporters
• Allow TV news crews to record their presentations or performances
I know of companies and institutions that neglected to clarify appearance requirements and ended up paying huge fees to celebrities who did not promote their involvement to their thousands of followers and limited their availability to press. And while rubbing elbows with celebrities was great for those in attendance, it did not help generate interest in the events, the organizations or the cause.
But rather than focus on those who fell down on the job, I’d like to salute those VIPs, those citizens of the world who voluntarily use their “bully pulpits” to raise dollars and awareness, bring an issue or idea to the forefront or highlight an injustice. Bravo! And thank you for your service.